Friday, December 19, 2008

Leather Holiday Traditions

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #354, December 19, 2008)

It was a festive holiday weekend as members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community gathered—twice—at Rumours/Innuendo in St. Paul.

MSDB’s annual Bizarre Bazaar on Saturday, Dec. 6 filled two rooms and a balcony with local leather and fetish vendors, eye-popping entertainment, and a silent auction benefiting the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

The very next day the Atons of Minneapolis took over the same space with their annual Holiday Fundraiser benefiting The Aliveness Project and Open Arms of Minnesota. As in years past, the event featured a food drive and a huge silent auction. But this year the Atons and their guests took the “photos with leather Santa” thing to new and amazing heights—those were not photos, they were tableaux.

Here’s wishing everyone a safe, sane and merry holiday season.

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The daring Tina, one of the entertainers at the Bizarre Bazaar. Why “daring”? She danced while balancing a four-foot sword—on edge—on top of her head.

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Happy shoppers at the Bizarre Bazaar. From left: John, Brie and Paul.

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Merchandise at the Bizarre Bazaar, Gray’s Leather booth.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Bertke

Members of the Atons of Minneapolis in a holiday mood.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Bertke

A Christmas tableaux: Kevin Winge (Executive Director, Open Arms of Minnesota) and Jonesey (Leather Santa).

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Nothing says “Holidays” like an elf (B.D. Chambers) in a pillory.

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Revelers at the Atons Holiday Fundraiser: Ken and John; Rick and Mark; David, Robert and David; John and Tom.

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Portrait of an auction winner: David and his new chain-mail vest.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Leather in Lean Times

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #353, December 5, 2008)

The economic downturn hits home in ways big and small. This column, you might have noticed, didn’t appear in the previous issue of Lavender. Fewer advertising pages meant fewer pages for editorial content.

Another publication for which I’ve been writing (Skin 2, a fetish magazine in the UK), because of a decline in advertising revenue, recently decided it could no longer maintain its quarterly publishing schedule and now plans to issue one hard-bound book-style publication a year.

Publishing is not the only market sector hurting right now. The major investment banks on Wall Street are but a memory, and the stock market has lost everything it gained since about 1998. If you’re lucky enough to have retirement savings you’re probably watching with alarm as those savings shrink.

Detroit automakers say they’re headed for bankruptcy unless Congress intervenes—and China’s automakers say they need a government bailout, too. Meanwhile Mercedes-Benzes, and even fuel-efficient Toyotas, are piling up at the docks in the Port of Long Beach, Calif., as people’s ability or desire to buy them evaporates.

The housing market is worse than sluggish. Perhaps you’re a homeowner who would like to sell your home but can’t because prospective buyers can’t get a mortgage—or because the sale price would be less than what you owe on your mortgage. Or maybe you have an adjustable-rate mortgage and are watching helplessly as the payments balloon to the point of pain.

Unemployment is up and personal incomes are down. I know way too many people who are looking for a job right now. Retailers are bracing for dismal holiday sales in spite of major discounts and price cuts. Some small business owners find they can’t obtain loans needed to keep their business going.

Closer to home, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve arrived recently at a restaurant only to find it has vanished. And now, hitting especially close to home for folks like us, the much-loved Pi Bar was scheduled to close Nov. 15, becoming a casualty of the mortgage/lending/credit crisis. (At this writing unorthodox but heroic efforts are underway to save Pi through community investment.)

Pi’s problems reveal the truth of our current situation: This crisis isn’t just economic. The crisis is social and cultural as well. Before things settle down, the GLBT and leather/BDSM/fetish communities stand to lose some cherished institutions.

Leather already has been through one major crisis in its fifty-something-year history. AIDS hit the leather community especially hard, killing much of a generation and disrupting the formal and informal mentoring and educational processes on which the survival and perpetuation of leather culture depends.

In the face of that crisis the community pulled together and dealt with it. Community members raised funds for care and research while much of the rest of society ignored the problem. Those who were healthy took care of those who were sick. And we supported each other as we mourned the many comrades we lost.

The community survived, but much damage needed to be repaired. In some ways, we’re still repairing that damage over two decades later.

Now our community—this time along with the rest of the country and the world—is facing a different kind of crisis. What do we do? How do we minimize the social and cultural damage that an economic downturn can cause?

We somehow do more with less. We acknowledge the reality of the changed circumstances for ourselves and for our community and society at large. Then we do what’s necessary to deal with those changed circumstances as intelligently and sensitively as possible. Some things will have to be scaled back. Some things just won’t happen, at least for a while. We’ll just have to do the best we can.

We decide what’s most important, and we support it. Conversely, we defer other things, or let them go altogether. We’ll all have to make hard choices, although some choices will effectively be made for us—if it’s a choice between spending limited funds on travel to a leather event or buying groceries, there’s not much to argue about. Perhaps we won’t be able to do everything we’ve been doing, or do it to the same extent. Eventually, when things settle down and straighten out, we can revisit the things we let go or scaled back and, if we think it’s appropriate, either resurrect or expand them again.

We try not to become either mercenary or hardened. The Leather Pride flag has a heart on it for a reason. Even in the face of current circumstances, we mustn’t allow that heart to become hardened. If we stop caring about others because we’re in trouble ourselves, we as a community will sacrifice our heritage and lose our soul. Even as we worry about our own circumstances, I hope we’ll continue to help those who are worse off than we are.

Nothing in our community—not bars, businesses, contests, other events, clubs, community institutions like NCSF, LA&M, Woodhull or other community non-profits—will be immune. It’s a storm we’ll all have to weather, together. I believe we will. And I hope when the storm is over we come out stronger, with our priorities in sharper focus and our conviction renewed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

10th Anniversary Bash for Pride Alive

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #351, November 7, 2008)

Pride Alive, a program of the Minnesota AIDS Project, is ten years old. To celebrate, they’re having a 10th Anniversary Bash on Saturday, Nov. 15, 7-9 P.M. at Intermedia Arts (2822 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis) You’re invited.

The 10th Anniversary Bash is free and is billed as an evening of “food, drink and drag”—and I’m sure it will be an evening of memories as well. Hostess and mistress of ceremonies will be Helen Back. Performers will include Evie Black, Gosh Alice Jones, Cee Cee Russell and a host of other talent. Food will be catered by The Independent. There will, of course, be birthday cake.

Pride Alive is the gay, bi and queer men’s health initiative of the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP). Their outreach is to adult men who have sexual contact with other men, whether or not they identify as part of the LGBT community. (Another MAP program, Positive Link, is outreach specifically to men who are HIV-positive.)

According to their mission statement, Pride Alive “is gay and bisexual men and our allies working together to stop the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases by creating and sustaining a healthy sexual community. We empower individuals to participate in their health through social, political and civic involvement. By serving as leaders, mentors, and partners in the fight against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, homophobia, and heterosexism, we envision an empowered queer community that promotes healthy choices.”

When Pride Alive was created in 1998, many men had lived through years of education, sexual behavior changes and dedication to stopping the spread of HIV. But now there were new treatments for HIV that, in many people’s minds, made AIDS a “manageable disease” instead of a terminal illness. Many men had started to let their guard down, and the rate of AIDS infection had started to increase again.

MAP’s response was to create Pride Alive, a program intended to be much more than “latex only.” During its ten-year history Pride Alive representatives have been out and visible on the streets and at area bars, coffee shops and public sex environments providing information and distributing hundreds of thousands of safer-sex supply kits (some of which were distributed to delegates at both this year’s political conventions.) They’ve done thousands of HIV tests at area bars. They’ve hosted many intimate group discussions about sex, sexuality and health centered around, but not limited to, HIV. They’ve presented more formal educational seminars, including their current SaferZone workshops, in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota, as well as special presentations like the recent “Beyond HIV: What gay and bi men should know about their sexual health.” They’ve even held a “Guess the Lube” contest.

Every week Pride Alive has volunteer nights at Queerspace, their comfy drop-in-and-hang-out area on the second floor of the MAP building (1400 Park Ave., Minneapolis). Volunteers gather to eat, talk, watch a movie and do activities such as assembling the safer-sex supply kits mentioned above. (Take a small plastic bag and insert one or two condoms, a packet of lube, a piece of candy and a decorative and educational printed liner).

Pride Alive has created many ’zines and other publications and increasingly is moving into doing outreach online in internet chat rooms and on social-networking sites like gay.com, manhunt.net, MySpace and Facebook.

Pride Alive also builds community through social events. Andy Birkey, a Health Education Coordinator with Pride Alive, recalls some of those events from the last ten years: “Gay Day at Valleyfair, the Hand Hold In at the Mall of America, paintball with the Pink Pistols, thousands of HIV tests done in the bars, hundreds of thousands of condoms distributed, Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Saloon, dozens of camping trips, an iPod giveaway at Pride, trips to Pride festivals in Duluth, Fargo, Mankato, and Rochester, hosting Kyan Douglas of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Liquid Discourse, Cafe Chats, the Bachelor Auction, Orphans’ Thanksgiving, hundreds of LGBT voters registering to vote, protests against ex-gay ministries and Focus on the Family, and many, many more memorable moments.”

Pride Alive is producing a keepsake that will be distributed at the 10th Anniversary Bash: a yearbook with writeups about every activity Pride Alive has done over the last ten years, and with photos of participants in some of those events. The object of the evening, in the words of Keith Pedersen, another of Pride Alive’s Health Education Coordinators, is to “gather up anybody and everybody who’s been a part of Pride Alive over the last ten years. It’s a celebration of the program’s history and successes and an acknowledgment that the fight against HIV isn’t over.”

For more information about the Pride Alive 10th Anniversary Bash, about attending other Pride Alive educational and social events, or about volunteering, contact Pride Alive or visit <www.pridealive.org>.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Leather Invasion: Kink The Vote!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #350, October 24, 2008)

Date: Tuesday, Nov. 4

Location: Your designated polling place

Six months ago I wrote a column with the headline “Sex and Politics” (Lavender issue 335, March 28, 2008). I ended that column by saying, “If politicians professing to be God-fearing Christians have made such a mess of things over the last few decades, it might take a bunch of people formerly known as ‘pervs’ to make things better.”

It’s time. On Tuesday, Nov. 4, in the spirit of many “Rock The Vote!” and, more recently, “Queer The Vote” campaigns over the years, it’s time for “Kink The Vote!”, a nationwide Leather Invasion of the polls to help make sure the next four years are better than the last eight.

The concept of a “Leather Invasion” was invented by Robert Valin, a self-described “leather bear” who lives in New York City. Dismayed by bar closings and other signs that New York City’s leather scene was dwindling, he set about to revitalize things by calling for “new and alternative social and cultural activities for those interested in the love, commraderie [sic] and kinship of the Leather/Fetish lifestyle.”

In one of the group’s early outings, New York City leatherfolk invaded MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Other Leather Invasions have included IKEA, Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center, Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The idea has been adopted elsewhere, including the Twin Cities, where there have been Leather Invasion nights at several local theaters and restaurants. (Of course, the Atons of Minneapolis have long held their monthly Leather/Levi dinners at area restaurants—same idea.)

Now it’s time for the biggest and most important Leather Invasion ever—nationwide, at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

I don’t have to tell you things are a mess. I don’t have to tell you how bad the last eight years have been for our community, our country and the world in general. You can see it all around you.

I don’t have to tell you how you should vote. You’re smart enough to figure that out for yourself.

But consider this: The leather/BDSM/fetish community is a voting bloc. Or it could be if we want it to be, and if we make it one.

The radical Christian right is often estimated to make up about 15% of the voting public. The GLBT community usually is estimated at roughly 10% of the population, but according to the Stonewall Democrats GLBT voters account for only between 4% and 5% of voters in national exit polls.

Kinky folk, according to author Gloria G. Brame (Come Hither: A Commonsense Guide to Kinky Sex) are estimated to be between 5 and 50% of the population; the consensus is 10-15%, but Brame suspects the true percentage is higher.

Now consider that in 2004 about 64% of the general population voted. In the 2006 mid-term elections that figure fell to 40%. That’s a lot of people not voting. That means that if you do vote, your vote’s significance and influence is increased.

Imagine if we, the proud members of the leather/BDSM/fetish community, all showed up in force and voted. Imagine if we all got our friends to come to the polls and vote with us.

That’s what we need to do. We need to vote, and we need to vote in numbers big enough that the election results are a sound repudiation of the damaging and destructive politics and policies of the last eight years (and, in reality, most of the last twenty-eight). Oh, and we need to vote in numbers that produce such a large enough margin of victory that the election can’t be stolen—or stolen again, for those of you who are into conspiracy theories.

You can bet the forces of intolerance will be at the polls. These people will be voting against our community’s best interests, but ironically against their own best interests as well. Some people are so concerned with keeping an African American out of the White House, or keeping gays and lesbians from marrying, or trying to control what goes on in other people’s bedrooms, or taking away a woman’s right to make choices about her own body, they will base their vote on those issues and ignore the economy, the environment, two wars and our country’s tattered image.

These people will be voting. We need to outnumber them.

And remember, it’s not just a presidential election. Minnesotans, for example, will be voting also for a U.S. senator, a U.S. representative, state representatives, a variety of district and appellate judges, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, and possibly for other city and county offices and on various ballot issues. Be an informed voter—research candidates and issues before you go to the polls.

Not registered to vote? In Minnesota you can register at the polls on election day (info at <www.sos.state.mn.us/>). Wisconsin and Iowa also allow same-day registration at the polls. (By the way, the state with the highest voter turnout in the 2004 elections was Minnesota, with Wisconsin taking second-place honors.)

You have every reason to vote and no excuse not to. On Nov. 4, everybody gets one vote, although not everyone will use it. Use yours. Kink the Vote!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Meet CARAS: Better Leather Living Through Research

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #349, October 10, 2008)

And now for something really sexy . . .

Research—or, to be more specific, research concerning leather/BDSM/fetish and other alternative sexualities.

Okay, maybe research isn’t terribly “sexy.” But it’s important. And our community has the good fortune of having an organization that understands how important good, credible research can be. That organization is CARAS (Community Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities).

CARAS is a national-scale organization that started with an idea proposed by Dr. Richard Sprott at the ninth annual Leather Leadership Conference in 2005. The organization’s mission is to support and promote excellence in the study of alternative sexualities and to make research findings and information available both to other scholars and to alternative sexuality communities (including leather, BDSM, fetish, kink and polyamory). It does this by creating partnerships between community groups and academic researchers.

Good research is crucial for advancing the interests of sexual minority communities. The GLBT community benefited enormously from research done by Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and 1950s, which among other things showed a much greater prevalence of non-heterosexuality than had been previously thought to exist.

Also in the 1950s, Dr. Evelyn Hooker actually tested the then-prevalent idea that homosexuals were mentally ill. Her findings: self-identified homosexuals were no worse in social adjustment than the general population.

Research that challenged medical and legal discrimination against homosexuals, like Kinsey’s and Hooker’s, has been a big factor in improving life for members of the GLBT community. CARAS’ goal is to foster the same kind of research to benefit other alternative-sexuality communities.

Not much empirical information about alternative sexualities is currently available. Questions about what alternative sexualities are, how they affect people’s lives and how members of alternative-sexuality communities interact with the rest of society have not really been studied in a systematic, scientific way. Good research can replace ignorance and silence with well-grounded, accurate facts and insight.

Because solid research hasn’t been done, the many examples of inaccurate research that draw flawed conclusions about alternative sexualities are hard to challenge. Some of this flawed research is done by researchers with no connection to the communities they are studying, which often leads to clueless results. Worse, some researchers are influenced by preconceptions, myths and stereotypes, and the resulting studies are not objective, but instead are actively biased against the communities being studied. CARAS strives to encourage and disseminate research that is helpful instead of pointless or damaging.

In its role as a liaison, CARAS must satisfy the needs of scholarly and academic researchers. Simply stated, those needs are: get funded, get data and get published. If the research helps advance a researcher’s career or helps expand a field or domain of knowledge, so much the better.

But CARAS also must satisfy the needs of alternative-sexuality communities, such as the need that the research be relevant and helpful to the community. It also is important that the results be presented in understandable English instead of academic jargon.

To harmonize these needs, CARAS uses a research model known as “community-based research.” This is not a new invention—it’s an established concept that has been used, for example, in HIV/AIDS and other public health research.

Community-based research differs from traditional research by focusing on communities, not isolated individuals. Also, in traditional research models, researchers have all the power and authority, and the ability to dictate what’s important and what’s not. In community-based research, however, power is shared between the community being studied and the researchers doing the studying. A community can decide that research being proposed would not be helpful, and can choose not to support the research or to suggest changes to the proposal. Ideally, the community has input at every stage of a research project—what ideas will be researched, how the research will be done, and the manner in which the results will be made available.

CARAS already has some significant accomplishments to its credit. It created a well-received training DVD for counselors and therapists on working with clients who are kinky (contact them at the address below for a copy of the DVD). It recently reviewed a proposal from a student wanting to research the impact of stigma against leather/BDSM/kink on people’s access to health care. And it has done presentations and outreach at annual meetings and conferences of the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and several other professional groups. CARAS currently is the only organization consistently doing this type of outreach in vanilla settings.

Community support is essential to CARAS’ mission and success. Individuals can subscribe to the organization’s newsletter and web forums. Community organizations can get involved by becoming sponsors of CARAS. Academics wanting to do research on alternative-sexuality communities can be referred to CARAS to have their research proposals reviewed. (CARAS can be contacted at <info@caras.ws>.)

One final thought: Research has a long timeline—doing it takes a long time, but the results are influential for a long time, too. Right now the leather/BDSM/fetish community is about where the gay community was in the 1960s, and seems to be moving on the same path. CARAS exists to facilitate and focus the efforts of a modern-day Kinsey or Hooker whose research will lead to greater acceptance of alternative sexualities.

Friday, September 26, 2008

We’re (Almost) Everywhere

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #348, September 26, 2008)

It used to be that only a few large cities had any sort of organized leather scene. But in recent years, with the help of the Internet, leather/BDSM/fetish activities have spread to many smaller cities and towns. It is a measure, I think, of how the scene has grown over the years that currently some visible degree of leather/BDSM/fetish activity can be found pretty much coast to coast in the U.S. (with one major regional exception).

I make this conclusion based on several non-scientific and arbitrary data sources: 1) where leather clubs belonging to various regional club councils are located; 2) where the contestants have come from at leather contests I’ve been to lately; and 3) where nominees for this year’s Pantheon of Leather Community Service Awards hailed from. My thinking here is that some degree of organized leather activity has to exist in an area in order to keep a club going, send someone to compete in a contest or nominate someone from the area for a Pantheon award.

Let’s look at leather club activity first. The Atlantic Motorcycle Coordinating Council (AMCC) coordinates activities for 26 participating clubs in the eastern U.S., while the Mid-America Conference of Clubs (MACC) coordinates activities for 28 clubs in states in the middle of the U.S. (No similar council currently exists for the western part of the U.S.)

AMCC currently has member clubs in many of its constituent states. The exceptions are Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, West Virginia and North and South Carolina. MACC currently has member clubs in all of its constituent states except Indiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi. (Later on, we’ll see if we can find other kinds of leather activity in these states.)

Looking at AMCC and MACC membership gives us information about gay male leather activity, as does my next example: the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest. This year there were IML contestants from 22 states (as well as six foreign countries). All of the eastern and midwestern states sending contestants to IML are already on our leather map because they have member clubs in AMCC or MACC. But in the west, looking at where this year’s IML contestants came from allows us to add California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado to our list of states with a leather presence.

Now let’s look at a contest whose titleholders represent the pansexual leather community: the Mr. and Ms Olympus Leather contest. Out of nine contestants this year, three were from states we can add to our leather map of the U.S.: Utah, West Virginia and Alabama.

And with the addition of the 2008 Pantheon of Leather award nominees, we can account for even more states. This year’s nominees came from 35 states, including some that aren’t yet on our map: Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada.

After looking at these measurements of leather activity, some states still aren’t on our map. Here’s where I cheat by adding another data source: 4) an online leather club directory maintained by The Leather Journal. (This, I suppose, is the equivalent of Googling crossword puzzle clues, but never mind.)

In the Northeast, we were still missing Vermont, New Hampshire or Rhode Island. The Leather Journal lists several clubs in Rhode Island and one in New Hampshire, but none in Vermont. (There are no Target stores in Vermont, either. I wonder if there’s a connection?) At least Vermont, a small state, is surrounded by states with a higher level of leather/BDSM/fetish activity.

In the South, our map was still missing South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas. For South Carolina The Leather Journal lists clubs in Charleston, Columbia and Myrtle Beach, and for Arkansas it lists Leathermen of Arkansas and MAsT: Ozarks Region. But Mississippi has nothing listed. Again, at least Mississippi is surrounded by states with more to offer in the way of leather/BDSM/fetish.

What about our two newest states? Alaska has the Last Frontier Men’s Club in Anchorage, which serves both leather and bears, and who several years ago sent a contestant to IML. The Leather Journal lists nothing for Hawaii, though.

That leaves us with five remaining (and neighboring) states, a large hole in the northwestern part of our map representing leather’s last frontier: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. Checking my leather history book I see that only two of these states have ever sent a contestant to IML (Idaho in 1989 and 1991 and North Dakota in 1997). The Leather Journal listings are meager for Idaho (Boise Black Rose and a bear group) and South Dakota (Leather Spirits, a pansexual group). Nothing at all is listed for North Dakota, Montana or Wyoming. If leathermen were missionaries, these five states would represent fertile ground for saving souls.

That’s our snapshot of what today’s map of leather across the U.S. looks like. Of course, things have changed over the years and will continue to do so. Many fabled leather clubs of yesterday are no longer around, and leather/BSDM/fetish activity in local communities has been known to heat up or cool down for any number of reasons.

So what tomorrow’s leather map will look like is anyone’s guess. Who knows? If enough of us retire to Hawaii, Honolulu might one day be a leather hot spot. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Twelve Years Later: Marriage Equality (and other forms of bondage)

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #347, September 12, 2008)

Sometimes it’s good to take a look back to see how far we’ve come on an issue—in this case, marriage equality—and also how far we still have to go. In that spirit, I’m going to revisit a column I wrote almost twelve years ago that appeared in issue #38 of Lavender (Nov. 8, 1996).

Since that column appeared, marriage equality for same-gender couples has made significant progress. Same-gender marriage has become legal in six countries, with fifteen more allowing same-gender partnerships or unions. In the U.S., Massachusetts and California allow marriage for same-gender couples and New York recognizes same-gender marriages performed elsewhere. Six more states allow same-gender partnerships or unions. Closer to home, marriage-equality legislation was introduced in both houses of the Minnesota legislature last May, sponsored by five senators (the maximum number allowed) and fourteen representatives, all of whom deserve a big “Thank you!” for their courage and support. (Visit <marriageequalitymn.org> for more information.)

I started the 1996 column by saying marriage for same-gender couples seemed to have become a hot-button topic of discussion and activism in the leather community. One outgoing titleholder that year renewed his vows with his partner as part of his stepping-down speech. Another, a competitor in the International Mr. Drummer contest in San Francisco, went on to win the contest after marrying his partner onstage. But for the leather community, I said, same-gender marriage was really just the tip of the iceberg:

Relationships in the gay community in general and the leather/SM community in particular come in a rainbow of flavors the general straight public doesn’t usually consider. The leather community, in addition to woman/woman or man/man (and even, on occasion, woman/man) spousal relationships, offers such esoteric relationship choices as daddy/boy (neither of which is necessarily male, by the way) and master/slave. Adding to the richness of choices (or confusion, depending on your viewpoint) is the fact that one person may engage in multiple concurrent relationships; one person could theoretically be someone’s boy, someone else’s daddy, someone else’s master or slave, and someone else’s spouse all at the same time.

Certain elements of straight society find relationships like these threatening and subversive. They are so frightened by the form of these relationships they never get around to investigating the content; if they did they’d see the same kind of “traditional family values” they spend so much time talking about. . . .

If we let someone else’s disapproval dampen our enjoyment of our culture and our relationships we have only ourselves to blame. No one can oppress another without the other’s consent. To the extent we are secretive about the nature of our relationships we reinforce to ourselves, and to the general public, the idea that those relationships aren’t acceptable.

The Stonewall rebellion was about gays and lesbians questioning their oppression by straight society. It spawned a viewpoint that said, “We’re tired of not having the same rights as straights. When is it going to be our turn?”

The answer to that question is simple. It’s our turn whenever we take it.

But if we don’t take it, no one will ever give it to us.

More and more gay people, both leather and non-leather, aren’t waiting for society to legalize gay marriage, to “give us our turn.” They’re taking their turn right now. The leather/SM and non-leather GLBT communities have taken society’s rulebook (in which marriage is defined as a lifelong monogamous union of a submissive wife and a dominant husband for the purpose of producing offspring) and thrown it away. We no longer constrained by those rules—we are free to invent new kinds of relationships that meet our needs and the needs of those we love. If two people of whatever sex and/or gender decide that a traditional monogamous marriage framework (with or without children) is what they want, fine. If another framework better meets their needs, that’s fine too.

Legalized gay marriage will offer certain benefits (and will also entail certain responsibilities). But legislation won’t change peoples’ hearts and minds—hearts and minds will have to change in order for the legislation to be enacted. And hearts and minds will be changed, one heart and one mind at a time, by enough of us being open and proud of our culture and our relationships—woman/woman, man/man, daddy/boy, master/slave, whatever.

Leather pride—or any other pride, for that matter—is when we can be open, honest, genuine about ourselves and our relationships, and not feel a need to apologize. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—over time society will get used to the idea that our relationships can be healthy, positive and satisfying. Finally, in a stunning example of anticlimax, gay marriage will be legalized.

But we don’t really have to wait for that to happen. Remember, it’s our turn whenever we take it. It’s our turn right now.
It was true in 1996. It’s still true today.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Welcome, Leather Republicans!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #346, August 29, 2008)

One of the traditions of this column is to welcome large groups of out-of-towners who come to the Twin Cities for leather-related events. Well, a large group of out-of-towners soon will be descending on the Twin Cities metropolitan area. While they’re not coming to town for a leather-related event, some of them will probably be visiting The Minneapolis Eagle while they’re here. So I’m going to extend them this column’s traditional welcome.

The Republican Party convention will be held in St. Paul Sept. 1-4, and area bars and restaurants are gearing up for the onslaught of hungry and thirsty convention delegates. I have heard from several sources that convention advance teams checked out The Minneapolis Eagle and were impressed, so predictions are that The Minneapolis Eagle will be one of the Twin Towns’ after-hours hot spots during the convention (and perhaps the weekends before and after the convention, as well). Conventions delegates and other visitors to our fair cities will be joining the locals at the Eagle in creating a different kind of Grand Old Party.

There are several things you might be thinking right about now. Republican delegates at The Minneapolis Eagle? Would good, God-fearing Republicans stoop to be seen there? The answer to that is, “We Are Everywhere,” including in the ranks of the Republican Party (depending on whom you read and what you believe, perhaps even the very highest ranks of the Republican Party).

But will the Republican delegates feel comfortable once they get to The Eagle? Sure—it’s a pretty welcoming place. You might think that political differences among bar patrons could become the, umm, elephant in the room that nobody talks about. But The Minneapolis Eagle, like most bars, is non-partisan. And leather, when you think about, is non-partisan, too, or perhaps pan-partisan—open to all kinds of different political beliefs.

Leather is inherently conservative. This is not surprising when you consider that founders of the original gay leather community were former military men, and the military generally is not regarded as a bastion of liberalism. Even today, leather community ideals and values that were bequeathed to us by those former military men (trust, honor, integrity, keeping your word, respect for self and others) are conservative in the best and truest sense of that word.

Leather is also inherently libertarian. The founders of the early leather community had a live-and-let-live attitude. They made a decision to live their lives in their own way and on their own terms, and for many of them it wasn’t important if other people approved of their choices or not. In the same way, they realized that they had to offer that same consideration to everyone else, and they did. If something about the way they lived resonated with you, you could ask to join them. If not, no problem.

And yet, leather became progressive in spite of itself. As time went on, it became more difficult for many people in leather not to care about what other people thought of them. Some members of the leather community moved from a live-and-let-live attitude to political and social activism when they were among those taking a lead in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the early gay-liberation movement of the 1970s.

The leather community was among those hit hardest by the AIDS crisis, and leather, of necessity, became more progressive. Leather community members were among those in the forefront of dealing with the epidemic, both by taking care of infected and dying comrades and by teaching changes in behavior and attitude to help stop the spread of the virus.

Today, some aspects of leather often seem to be trending again to the conservative. We watch as leather and BDSM imagery becomes more mainstream and is appropriated by rock stars and advertising agencies, many of whom care only for shock value and have no idea of the culture, community, history and values behind the images.

And even as those images move into the mainstream, the culture that spawned them is changing as younger people bring new ideas and expand the concept of leather to include other fetishes and fetish gear. Some are worried that between mass acceptance and generational transition, the values that the leather community once prized, and around which that community revolved, will be lost. Some community members have lately been calling for a “return to basics” or a “leather renaissance” to ensure that leather values and traditions will be maintained as the community evolves. Sounds conservative to me—again, in the best sense of the word.

So, to Republican convention delegates from across the nation, as well as all the media personnel who are here to cover the event: welcome to Minnesota, to the Twin Cities, and to our little corner of the Leather Nation. Conservative, progressive or libertarian, there’s room in the leather tent for people of all political persuasions.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Leather Contests and Titles: Every Color of the Rainbow

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #345, August 15, 2008)

In the world of leather contests and titles, International Mr. Leather (IML) is the most well known. Having just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, IML is the oldest surviving international leather contest and title, and also the largest.

But IML is just one of a whole spectrum of national and international leather contests and titles that represent just about every subgroup in the leather/BDSM/fetish community. Although not as large as IML, these events, and the titles associated with them, represent important and diverse parts of leather culture.

Here’s a quick review of why leather contests and titles exist: They offer entertainment to the audience, a challenge to the contestants, a service opportunity to those who win the contests and hold the titles, and a source of representatives, positive role models and leaders for the community. Leather contests may have started as “beauty pageants,” but over the years they have become much more.

Hobbit, International Ms. Leather 2008.
(Credit: Marcus Hernandez)
Let’s begin our survey of contests and titles with IML’s female counterpart, International Ms Leather (IMsL). Billed as a weekend for “leatherwomen and those who love them,” in the last two years this contest has seen amazing growth since moving back to San Francisco, Calif. where it started in 1987.

The 2008 IMsL weekend was May 1-4 and was attended by a crowd of over 600(?). More than 40 educational classes were offered during the weekend as well as a dozen hospitality receptions, a Uniform Party, a Boots and Cigars party, a vendor mart and three different play areas (women only, men only and pansexual) available the entire weekend.

The IMsL contest was won by Hobbit, who hails from Seattle (and who also was awarded the “congeniality” prize by the other contestants). Check out her blog at http://IMSL2008.livejournal.com.

IMsL weekend also includes the International Ms Bootblack contest, which was won this year by Miss “Q” of Atlanta. That makes her the female counterpart (also called “sash wife”) to Bootdog, who won this year’s International Mr. Bootblack 2008 competition held as part of the International Mr. Leather weekend.

The American Leather Family for 2008.
Back: Randy Carmenaty, Joan Norry. Front: Chris Scherrer.
(Credit: Marcus Hernandez)
The American Brotherhood Weekend (ABW), whose motto is “Celebrating the American Leather Family,” awards a whole family of leather titles at one event. The American Leatherman title started the family in 1989 and was joined by American Leatherwoman in 1994, American Leatherboy in 1995 and American Leathergirl in 2004.

After a one-year hiatus in 2007, ABW has enthusiastically rejoined the landscape of national leather events. This year’s contest weekend was held July 10-14 in New Orleans and produced the following new titleholders: Randy Carmenaty (from North Hollywood, Calif.) became American Leatherman 2008; Joan Norry (from San Leandro, Calif.) became American Leatherwoman 2008; and Chris Scherrer (from Denver, Co.) became American Leatherboy 2008. (Sadly, there were no contestants for American Leathergirl. Next year, perhaps?) The weekend itself was reportedly filled with food, camaraderie and the wonderful hospitality for which New Orleans is justly famous.

Andrew, Mr. Olympus Leather 2008 and
Mistress Sabrae, Ms Olympus Leather 2008.
One weekend after ABW, and 926 miles to the north, the Mr./Ms Olympus Leather contest was held July 18-20 in Chicago in conjunction with the Pantheon of Leather Community Service Awards. (Both the Pantheon awards and the Olympus Leather titles were created by Dave Rhodes, publisher of The Leather Journal.) Olympus Leather titleholders represent the pansexual branch of the leather/BDSM/fetish community. Noteworthy in leather contest circles is the fact that the Olympus Leather titles are very transgender-friendly.

This year’s Mr./Ms Olympus Leather contest was held in the auditorium at The Chicago Eagle/Man’s Country. Nine contestants (three men and six women) each had a private interview with the judges, went through a question-and-answer session in front of the audience and presented a “fantasy” (erotic skit). When the scores were added up, the new Mr. and Ms Olympus Leather titleholders were Andrew (from Salt Lake City, Utah) and Mistress Sabrae (from Hoover, Ala.) You can see Olympus Leather contest photos at gallery.mac.com/leatherlife.

International Deaf leatherboy 2008,
boy taz (kneeling) and International
Deaf Leatherman 2008, Sir Y.
The same weekend the new Olympus Leather titleholders were being chosen in Chicago, the International Deaf Leather (IDL) contest weekend was being held in Philadelphia, Pa. (July 17-19). Gary Iriza, the current International Mr. Leather, was one of the contest’s judges (which explains why I didn’t see him in Chicago at the Pantheon/OIympus Leather weekend). The new titleholders: International Mr. Deaf Leather 2008 is Marc “Sir Y” Burton, and International Deaf leatherboy 2008 is Alan “boy taz” Arble.

Next up is the International LeatherSIR/Leatherboy contest, which is the direct descendant of the legendary International Mr. Drummer and Drummerboy contests started in San Francisco in 1979 (the same year as the first International Mr. Leather contest). This year’s contest weekend, which also includes the International Community Bootblack contest, returns to San Francisco, Oct. 9-12.

Then, for latex lovers, there’s the Mr. International Rubber contest in Chicago, Nov. 7-9. And next year, Masters and slaves will gather for the International Master/slave Contest weekend, held in conjunction with South Plains Leatherfest in Dallas, Tx., Feb. 27-March 1, 2009.

And there you have it—for a rainbow tribe, a rainbow collection of contests and titles.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Leather Leadership Conference XI Wins Pantheon Award

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #344, August 1, 2008)

Steve Lenius (left) accepting award from Jon Krongaard.
(Credit: Bill Schlichting)
To paraphrase Sally Field: They liked us, they really liked us!

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 20, Leather Leadership Conference (LLC) XI, which took place April 20-22, 2007 in Minneapolis, was the winner in the “Large Event of the Year” category at Pantheon of Leather XVIII.

The Pantheon of Leather Community Service Awards, the leather/BDSM/fetish community’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscars®, were started in 1991 by Dave Rhodes, publisher of The Leather Journal.

This year’s Pantheon of Leather awards ceremony was held in the Etienne Auditorium of the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago. Thirty-two awards were presented, honoring individuals, couples, clubs, events, businesses and non-profit organizations. In the “Large Event of the Year” category, Leather Leadership Conference XI was one of 24 nominated events from across the United States.

Your humble columnist attended the awards ceremony and was completely taken by surprise when LLC XI was announced as the winner. Having no prepared acceptance speech in my pocket, I walked in a daze to the lectern to accept the award and said something rambling and probably incoherent. (Moral of story: If you are nominated for an award, it is incumbent upon you to prepare an acceptance speech whether or not you think you will win, because you just never know.)

If I would have had the presence of mind to prepare an acceptance speech, it would have gone something like this:

Let me start by thanking Dave Rhodes and the Pantheon of Leather board, and this year’s selection panel, for choosing LLC XI to receive this award. The conference took three years of hard work on the part of many people. Receiving this award is the finishing touch, the cherry on top of the sundae.

As Chief Instigator of LLC XI, all I did was to come up with the crazy idea of bringing the Leather Leadership Conference to Minnesota. It was the efforts of the LLC XI Local Organizing Committee members and many, many other people that actually made the event happen.

If anyone wonders what it takes to create an award-winning Leather Leadership Conference, in the case of LLC XI here’s what, or rather who, it took—and I’d like to personally thank every one of them:

• All the local community members who got the ball rolling and helped put together the bid that brought the conference to Minneapolis.

• The members of the Local Organizing Committee: committee chairpersons Claudia Pauline (Programming), Sassy Tongue (Promotions), Ceilo and Vicki (Production co-chairs; Ceilo was also the Instigator’s Assistant), Charger (Procurement/Fundraising), Eliish (secretary), Jenn (registrar), Bill Schlichting (treasurer, also the Chief Instigator’s partner). Also Dave G. (hotel liaison), David Coral (advertising and graphic design and production), Andrew Bertke (webmaster) and Lady Carol (newsletter editor).

• Everyone who served on the various committees and subcommittees, and the many volunteers who helped before, during and after the conference.

• Our keynote speakers Barbara Nitke, Laura Antoniou and John Pendal; all our session presenters for the weekend; and everyone who attended the conference.

• Our special guest artist Morgan Monceaux/Sir Nagrom; all the other artists whose work was on exhibition in the LLC XI Gallery; and the artists and entertainers who performed during Friday’s opening cabaret.

• The staff at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, our host hotel, and everyone involved in planning and presenting the two unofficial parties that just happened to take place the same weekend as the conference.

• All our event sponsors, including our largest sponsor NELA, the New England Leather Alliance. Our sponsors made it possible for us to present the caliber of conference we wanted to present.

• The Leather Leadership Conference, Inc. national board, especially Jack Rinella and Sheryl Dee, our board liaisons, and Larry Manion, who was Chairman at the time.

• And many more people I don’t have space to name. Without the efforts of all these people, LLC XI would not have been possible.

Even though LLC XI happened over a year ago, the conference lives on as a series of free audio podcasts. Fourteen podcasts are currently available with more still to be released. Find a link to them, as well as many other resources for leather leadership development, at <www.leatherleadership.org>.

Next year’s conference will be in Atlanta, Ga. April 3-5, 2009. I encourage everyone to attend, and I wish for the folks in Atlanta the same kind of success we had with LLC XI in Minneapolis.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Twin Cities Leather/BDSM/Fetish History

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #343, July 18, 2008)

Community Discussion to be held July 29

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

One way a community is, in fact, a community is that it has a common history. And one way a community knows that it is a community is that it knows its own history. Shared experiences create both the community itself and the community’s history, and the act of sharing stories of those experiences further strengthens the community.

But history, as the quote above reminds us, also is valuable for what we can learn from it. If we tried something and it didn’t go well, we want to remember not to do it again. On the other hand, if we tried something and it worked, we might actually want to repeat it and maybe even try to make it better the next time.

So it’s good to pay attention to history. With that in mind, a panel discussion (with audience participation) on the history of leather/BDSM/fetish in the Twin Cities will be held on Tuesday, July 29, 6:30-10 P.M. (doors open at 6 P.M.) at Patrick’s Cabaret (3010 Minnehaha Ave. S.). According to the panel’s organizers, the event is “open to everyone interested in our history in a positive way.”

Tom Stice, a board member of the Leather Archives & Museum, visited the Twin Cities recently. During his visit he noted that leather history is not just what happened in San Francisco or New York—these are not the only places significant things have happened. Leather/BDSM/fetish history is made up of notable things that have happened everywhere, including the Twin Cities. One example is this community’s tradition of giant Leather Pride and Rainbow flags.

The discussion’s organizers, in their pre-event publicity, mention other significant local community accomplishments: “The leather and BDSM communities in the Twin Cities are known for their tolerance, vitality, and diversity. We successfully hosted last year’s Leather Leadership Conference. Our Pride Week, including Leather Pride, is one of the largest and most spectacular in the nation. We have dozens of clubs, play parties galore, a flourishing informal network of dungeons in which to hold them, and more classes, presentations, meetings and munches than any one person can possibly attend.”

We have a local leather/BDSM/fetish community history worth preserving, worth remembering, worth celebrating and worth learning from. And worth capturing while we can—while our community elders still are here to tell their tales. As Stice said during his visit, “History that is not preserved is history that never happened.”

The upcoming panel discussion, however, has been planned to be much more than just a look back at our history. Quoting the panel’s organizers again, they first ask: “What lies behind our ability to accomplish so much that is so positive? What conflicts and what basic agreements have contributed to this? How can we strengthen and extend the best of our traditions and practices?”

The object of the discussion will be both to celebrate our successes and, more importantly, to learn from the rough times the community has been through. As the discussion’s organizers put it: “We know that our history can be controversial and we do not plan to suppress discussion. We expect that specific events and organizations will be mentioned. We are aware that we—ourselves included—have not always been correct or on our best behavior, that there have been painful incidents in our communities that have altered them forever and finally that conflicting interpretations of our history and of the present state of our communities are not only possible but necessary.”

Disagreements and conflicts happen in any group of people. And how the group handles those disagreements and conflicts determines whether that community becomes stronger or falls apart. A vibrant community is one whose members have the courage and the willingness to confront these kinds of issues and work through them, instead of either dealing with these kinds of issues obliquely or ignoring them.

Disclaimer: Your humble columnist will be one of the evening’s panelists. But the panelists will not be the only people talking. The organizers have made it clear that they invite, and hope for, full participation in the discussion from everyone attending. They state: “Ask and you shall be answered. Speak and you shall be heard. . . . We require only that our discussion be, to the best of our abilities, informed and aimed at educating and strengthening our communities as we grow and progress.”

A donation of $5 at the door is requested to help defray expenses, but no one will be refused admission based on inability to pay.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Images of Minnesota Leather Pride 2008

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #342, July 4, 2008)

6/21/2008

“Radical Ecstasy” Workshop

Special guest presenters, authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy

(photo credit: Bill Schlichting)

6/23/2008, Smitten Kitten

BDSM Creative Commons Anthology reading

Your humble columnist reads his poem, “The Zen of Hankies”

(photo credit: Andrew Bertke)

6/26/2008, Minneapolis Eagle patio

Smokeout

Sam Carlisle, cigar aficionado

(photo credit: Steve Lenius)

6/26/2008, Minneapolis Eagle patio

Smokeout

Angel Rodriguez enjoys a cigar

(photo credit: Andrew Bertke)

6/27/2008, Bolt Underground

Floggapalooza

(photo credit: Andrew Bertke)

6/27/2008, Bolt Underground

Floggapalooza

(photo credit: Matt Porath)

6/29/2008, Hennepin Avenue

Leather Pride Flag Retirement Ceremony

Folding the retiring flag

(photo credit: Bill Schlichting)

6/29/2008, Hennepin Avenue

Leather Pride Flag Retirement Ceremony

Folding the retiring flag

(photo credit: Bill Schlichting)

6/29/2008, Hennepin Avenue

Leather Pride Flag Retirement Ceremony

Colin Spriestersbach and Carl Gscheidemeier (who, respectively, commissioned and constructed the retiring flag) watch the ceremony

(photo credit: Matt Porath)

6/29/2008, Hennepin Avenue

Leather Pride Flag Retirement Ceremony

The new giant Leather Pride flag makes its initial appearance

6/29/2008, Hennepin Avenue

Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade

The new giant Leather Pride flag

6/29/2008, Loring Park

Pride Festival

Leather community booth